John le Carré’s archivist: papers reveal a painstaking literary craftsman

Richard Ovenden, University of Oxford

In 2006 I wrote a speculative letter to David Cornwell (better known by his nom de plume, John le Carré) containing a polite request that, if he hadn’t made other plans, would he consider donating his papers to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

The Bodleian holds important collections of archives and manuscripts (among many other things) of politicians, scientists, philosophers, and of course writers. I felt that his papers should be in a British institution – and where better than the research library of the university where he had been an undergraduate (he read modern languages at Oxford in the 1950s).

The reply came back very swiftly: he had not been asked by any other British institution, and had rebuffed offers from US libraries with deep pockets, adding, “I am delighted to be able to do this. Oxford was Smiley’s spiritual home, as it is mine. And while I have the greatest respect for American universities, the Bodleian is where I shall most happily rest.”

Now the great writer has died, I have been reflecting on the legacy of his archive and on the friendship that exchange initiated. David and his wife Jane came to visit a few weeks later and I followed this up the following spring with a visit to their Cornish home, near where my family and I often holidayed. David treated my family to a cliff-top game of croquet, while Jane and I went to survey the papers which were stored in a converted barn. They had been very carefully boxed, book-by-book, making our archival task considerably easier.

The first 85 boxes arrived in the Bodleian a little while later and we were able to begin the task of cataloguing the first tranches of papers, which has made it possible for students and scholars to access these materials, and for us to include them in exhibitions and seminars.

Evolution of an idea

The papers are most revealing of David’s approach to writing, and of his collaboration with Jane. Take his classic Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy for example. The papers show how the novel evolved in the process of composition from its early working title – The Reluctant Autumn of George Smiley – to the final published text.

Manuscript page of a John le Carré novel showing edits.
David Cornwell’s manuscripts show the evolution of his writing process.
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

There are almost 30 drafts of the novel made during the process of composition, 1972-4, from the first hand-written manuscripts through to the final proofs. Each of these show an incredible intensity of close attention to the text: important changes are made on each version, the author determined to improve the work right up to the moment when it finally goes off to the printer.

The early drafts show a deep process of collaboration with his wife, Jane. He would hand the manuscript of the first draft over to her to be typed up, and the typescript would then be worked on: attacked with scissors and staple-gun, with more layers of manuscript additions and rewrites in every spare inch of white paper. The process would be repeated many times through the subsequent drafts, often creating a document that must have been incredibly hard for Jane to interpret and lay the newly revised text out cleanly and clearly on a new sheet of blank paper, but their close working made the process efficient and effective. Her participation in the creation of the novels, which was constructively editorial, has been too often overlooked.

One of the undated, untitled drafts is an early version of the beginning of chapter two, in which George Smiley is introduced to the reader as: “small, podgy … one of those gentle, reluctant worker-bees who throng London’s suburban railway system”. The bee metaphor was eventually excised from the published text, but in this draft many of Smiley’s familiar characteristics are already present and more are added as David amends and elaborates his first thoughts. A fuller picture of the spymaster begins to emerge: “His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress sober”.

Two slightly later drafts (with the bee comparison retained) are titled The Reluctant Autumn of George Smiley, the second version with the subtitle “being the first story of THE QUEST FOR KARLA”. Only the latest drafts are titled Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and begin with a description of Thursgood School, where one of the key characters in the plot has hidden away, rather than an introduction to Smiley.

The materiality of these drafts: the layers of manuscript over typescript, the stapled additions of cut-outs from other drafts and versions, all combine to show to me that David was not just an artist, but approached his writing as a craft as well. He put a great deal of time, energy and care into the process of composition – a process that was physical as well as intellectual.

A place in the pantheon

I am often asked where I place the writers whose archives we have in “the western canon” – if you like, the “hall of literary fame”. Perhaps there is a sense that having your papers in the Bodleian is a form of “canonisation”, but the world of letters is moving away from the notion of the canon, and more embracing of allowing new voices to be heard from around the world, increasingly in languages other than English.

Now that le Carré will write no more, will his novels still be read in 50 years time? I am certain they will. His work is remarkable for sustaining the popular and critical acclaim throughout his literary lifetime, almost into his tenth decade. Students will find his work an increasingly fertile field for dissertations – and scholars are already approaching him as a narrator not just of the Cold War, but of post-war geopolitics.

Read more:
John Le Carré: authentic spy fiction that wrote the wrongs of post-war British intelligence

The real success of David Cornwell’s writing to me is that his books are not easy. They are brilliantly written, painstakingly constructed, and have superbly drawn characters and thrilling plot lines. But the texts are complex and require effort on the part of the reader to comprehend the intricacies and remember small details which are often critical to the plot.

It is in this complexity that le Carré conveys the reality of the world. Things are not simple when human beings are involved. Their contradictions and complexities are what make our world an intriguing, interesting, and infuriating place. David Cornwell, as John le Carré, described and conveyed it like no other writer.The Conversation

Richard Ovenden, Director of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Le Carré: authentic spy fiction that wrote the wrongs of post-war British intelligence

Christopher J. Murphy, University of Salford

Britain’s top spy, MI6 chief Richard Moore, has paid tribute to John le Carré, tweeting that the novelist had “left his mark on #MI6 through his evocative and brilliant novels”. Moore’s tweet, which conveyed the condolences of “all at the #RiverHouse” – the name le Carré gave the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) headquarters on the banks of the Thames, even blew le Carré’s cover, referring to the writer by his real name, David Cornwell.

Moore’s words of comfort were a far cry form the attitude of his predecessor at MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, who last year complained about the “corrosive” nature of le Carré’s novels, that he said were “exclusively about betrayal”, a criticism also levelled at his work by former SIS officer Baroness Daphne Park.

Read more:
John le Carré, MI6 and the fact and fiction of British secret intelligence

Le Carré’s 25 novels have always come with the added cachet of being written by someone who once worked for the intelligence services. Yet as the writer himself explained in 2013, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the 1963 novel that made him a household name, was only considered acceptable for publication by MI6 – for whom he was working at the time – because they had “concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security”.

The association with the reality of intelligence was one which le Carré himself was keen to downplay. He expressed his desire to shake off the association in an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1976:

If you write a story about street girls in London you aren’t immediately accused of running a brothel, but if you write a spy story, the more credible, the more authentic, the more plausible it is, the less credit you get for an act of imagination.

Imaginative it may have been, but le Carré’s work is certainly not devoid of realism – the shadow of Cambridge Spy Kim Philby can be seen in both the “mole” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and in the career of Magnus Pym, the protagonist of A Perfect Spy, which was partly based on le Carré’s own unhappy childhood. But credibility and authenticity do not necessarily equate to reality – anyone looking for true stories with the names changed would be disappointed.

Despite being products of his imagination, the credibility and authenticity that permeated le Carré’s work served to educate the general public about intelligence work at a time when very little was said officially about the agencies themselves. MI5 was not placed on a statutory basis – that is to say, it did not formally exist – until 1989, followed by MI6 five years later.

But ten years before that, when the BBC adaptation of his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was first broadcast, an audience of over 8 million which tuned in each week (according to his biographer, Adam Sisman) learned all about the danger of “moles” – long-term sleeper agents who burrow their way into the intelligence machinery of the “other side”.

Alec Guinness in costume for his role as spymaster George Smiley in the BBC production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Alec Guinness as George Smiley, John Le Carré’s fictional spymaster.
BBC Images

It was a timely education – in a pure coincidence of TV scheduling, within weeks of the broadcast, the public learned of the existence of a real-life, high-level mole. Sir Anthony Blunt, a former surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and wartime MI5 officer, was revealed to have been one of the Cambridge Five spy ring who were recruited before the second world war and who spied for decades for the Soviet Union from the heart of the British establishment.

Honeytraps and scalphunters

Le Carré’s novels dramatically changed the way the British public, fed on a diet of James Bond and Len Deighton, perceived the world of intelligence. They also provided welcome fodder for newspapers. A story about former MI6 chief John Scarlett’s post-intelligence career published in the i paper in November 2015 was given the headline: “The spy who came into a fortune”. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also regularly evoked in the press: “Now it’s tinker, tailor, soldier, Booker judge”, wrote Richard Brookes in the Sunday Times when it was announced that former director general of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, had been appointed to the judging panel for the literary award.

But as well as influencing public perceptions, le Carré’s intelligence jargon – “honeytraps”, “lamplighters”, “scalphunters”, “mothers”, “babysitters” and the like – had a corresponding influence on the spies themselves. As Sisman notes in his biography of le Carré, some of his terms were “subsequently adopted by intelligence professionals”.

There’s long been a strong connection between literary fiction and the world of espionage. Le Carré’s distinguished predecessors, including the likes of Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome and Ian Fleming had blazed that trail before. But it was le Carré, primarily, who took Britain’s spies out of sharp suits, fancy cars and the moral certainty of “my country right or wrong”. Instead he gave us books populated by people, like himself, who are: “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living.” No wonder some of the real spies didn’t always love his work.The Conversation

Christopher J. Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Intelligence Studies, University of Salford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.